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Work and social alienation


In this paper, I offer an account of social alienation, a genre of alienation engendered by contemporary work that has gone largely overlooked in the ethics of labor. Social alienation consists in a corruption of workers’ relations to their social life and the people that make it up. When one is socially alienated, one’s sociality and close relations exist as a mere afterthought or break from work, while labor is the central activity of one’s life. While one might think that existing solutions to alienated labor would resolve this social alienation, I suggest that such solutions at best leave the problem intact and may in fact contribute to it by giving labor the place of priority in workers’ lives. Resolving social alienation, I suggest, requires rethinking the amount of time we commit to work, the rigidity of the work schedule, and most crucially, the value that we attribute to work as the primary source of purpose in our lives.

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  1. Elster 1986a, 110–111.

  2. Pieper 1948, 28.

  3. Leopold 2018.

  4. Wood 2004.

  5. Jaeggi, 2014, 25.

  6. Ibid., 2.

  7. Ibid., 2.

  8. Ramsey, 3.

  9. See for instance Schroeder and Arpaly, 1999.

  10. Hardimon 1994, 121.

  11. Rose 2016, pp. 9–14.

  12. Ibid. 1–2.

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  15. FRED Economic Data.

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  24. See for instance Heathwood 2016, 2019.

  25. It might again seem odd to point out that people desire more social activity, given that I’ve argued that work interferes with the quality of such activity. However, this survey evidence might imply that people think their social activities would be of higher quality if they had more time to spend on them.

  26. Jenkins et al., 2008.

  27. Maestas et al., 2017.

  28. Ware 2012.

  29. Cholbi 2018, 3.

  30. Cholbi 2018.

  31. Finnis 1980.

  32. Fletcher 2013.

  33. Murphy, 2001.

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  35. Hurka 1993, 39.

  36. Or perhaps even less commonly, cases where one is subjectively alienated but doesn’t mind this experience.

  37. Elster, 1986b, 102–103.

  38. Ibid., 103–105.

  39. Ibid., 107.

  40. Ibid., 98.

  41. Ibid., 99.

  42. It is worth noting that in other writings, Elster seems to soften his endorsement of self-realizing activity over social relations. He says, “I shall only compare self-realization and consumption, although these do not exhaust all the possibilities. Some people devote their lives to friendship or to contemplation,” implying that social activity may not count as either self-realization or consumption and is therefore not his subject (Elster, 1986a, 45).

  43. Elster, 1986b, 120.

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  45. Kandiyali 2020, 564.

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  50. Pinsker 2020.

  51. Ibid.

  52. Ibid.

  53. Kandiyali 2020, 583.

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  68. I thank an anonymous reviewer for identifying this worry.

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  73. Ibid., 16.

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  76. Booth 2019.

  77. BBC, 2021.

  78. Choudhury, Foroughi, and Larson, 2020.

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I'd like to thank audiences at UC Boulder, UNC Charlotte, Tilburg University, and the Eastern APA for their helpful feedback on previous versions of this paper. Thanks also to Kenneth Baynes, Charles Prusik, Nicole Whalen, and two anonymous reviewers for detailed comments that significantly improved the paper. And thanks especially to Keshav Singh for encouraging me to pursue this project and for loads of thoughtful comments and conversations along the way.

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Bousquet, C. Work and social alienation. Philos Stud 180, 133–158 (2023).

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